Settling in Idaho 1976-1986
Vietnamese build an new life in Boise
The following is an abridged excerpt from, “A History of the Vietnam Community in Boise, 1957-1990” written August 1991. The full text is available at the Albertsons Library on the Boise State University campus.
Vietnamese people have been coming to Idaho since 1975, but not all of them came to this state directly from Vietnam. There has been a great deal of what sociologists term “secondary migration” among Vietnamese in the United States: people moving away from the city or state in which they first settled. In general, the trend has been toward California, but people move in all directions. Several people interviewed for this study moved to Idaho after first going to another state.
Hung Van Tran, who arrived at Camp Pendleton in 1975, was sent to a sponsor in Texas, but two of his friends came to Idaho. The following year he met his friends in California for a vacation, and they said, “Have you seen snow? Come to Idaho and see snow.” Since he was a young, single man at that point, with no ties, he agreed to go.
Chinh Vu went to Montana with her husband and children, but found it too cold for them there. In search of a milder climate they moved to Boise, where some of her husband’s relatives had settled.
Loc Nguyen and his wife were sponsored by the Seventh-day Adventist Church in California, where they were hired to work for Pacific Press, the church’s publishing company. When Pacific Press moved its plant to Nampa in 1984, the Nguyen family came to Idaho.
Another woman went to California in 1974 with her American husband. Some years later, her husband died and she moved to Boise to be near her sister.
Son Dam reached Camp Pendleton in the late summer of 1975. Sponsored by a man who lived in the Los Angeles area, he was still in a state of emotional shock and never really developed a close relationship with anyone in the city. “I don’t want to deal with anything,” he said. “I was kind of trying to run away from emotional … everything.” He moved to the state of Washington for a while, then in 1977 decided to travel to Pennsylvania. He took the bus and had to transfer in Caldwell, Idaho.
So, right about 11:30 [at night] I sitting here and waiting, and waiting, and waiting for the bus. And I think that I know people who live in Caldwell, people who I met in Camp Pendleton. So I stay there, getting bored, and fall asleep outside, and it was cold then, and some people … I saw them down [the street]. And they talk Vietnamese, and I kind of click at that, ‘Yeah, it’s Vietnamese people.’ And so they walk past me and they looked, and they turned around, and they recognize me. Say, ‘Son?’ I say, ‘Yeah.’ And they stop, very happy to see me, and they invite me over to their house. They on the way home from work, you know. They feed me really well, and they ask me all kind of questions, and they very excited and they want me to stay there.
So Son Dam missed his bus connection and has been in Idaho ever since. This last example illustrates how some Vietnamese people moved around during their first few years in the United States, almost randomly, as they gradually adjusted to their new surroundings. It is also typical of the way people have moved to Idaho ever since the first pioneers came over on the Oregon Trail. People’s wagons broke down, or they got sick, or their horses were tired. They stopped in Idaho to rest and four generation later their descendents are still here.
Finding their way
While some Vietnamese people moved into Idaho from other states, others moved away. In July 1975, the 16-member Nguyen family arrived in Lewiston. By 1978, eight of the 16 had left for San Diego, California, where the presence of a large ethnic community provided skilled jobs for Vietnamese speakers. The father found work teaching English to other Vietnamese people, and the oldest son obtained employment as a translator for the San Diego court. Other family members followed them south. Another daughter and son-in-law planned to move soon. Office of Refugee Resettlement statistics also show substantial out-migration from Idaho. Although between 1975 and 1989 nearly 1,000 Vietnamese refugees arrived in the state, in 1989 the Vietnamese Association could locate only about 400 of them.
People moved in search of warmer climate, to be near a larger Vietnamese community, or in search of better jobs. Chinh Vu commented that, “in general for Vietnamese, they love to live in California for the weather, and then [there are] a lot of Vietnamese there.” Ben Luu mentioned employment as a motive:
When I first came [other Vietnamese] told me they used to have a community here. But because Idaho is very hard to stay, to live here, to find jobs, and the climate and all the other stuff, people move. Like when I first came in 1979 they told me, ‘Oh, three years ago there were about fifteen hundred Vietnamese lived scattered around Idaho. Now they only have about six hundred.’ And so I say, ‘Oh, what happened?’ They say, ‘Oh, people just move away from Idaho, from Boise too, because they have better jobs in California in Los Angeles.’ Most people move down to California.
Some people probably also moved in a sort of random fashion, as Son Dam did, trying to get a sense of what the United States was like, and to try to figure out where they fit in. People’s first impressions of Idaho and the United States were mixed. Many said that the weather was too cold in comparison to the tropical climate they were used to. Others mentioned that everything in the United States seemed too big: the people, the houses, the businesses. Loc Nguyen said he worried because he thought he had to know about every aspect of the large printing company in California where he began work in 1975. In Vietnam, businesses tend to be smaller and an employee is expected to know how to do everything. Gradually he realized that in the United States, an employee only needs to understand what goes on in his own department. On the other hand, one man pointed out that Saigon is a city with a population of several million people. When he first saw Caldwell, he said to his friends in dismay, “Oh God, is this the place I live? This is a farm, not a city!” He added that he came to like the Boise area because people are so friendly, saying “hi” when they see you on the street, whether they know you or not. Several other people interviewed also mentioned the friendliness of Idahoans, and Boise’s relaxed atmosphere, as assets.
Housing was also a problem for many newly arrived refugee families. With adults earning only meager incomes, and with many families containing large numbers of children, it was difficult to find large enough houses in an affordable price range. Kim Hoang remembered that when her family arrived in 1975 they first shared a house with another family. The arrangement did not work out smoothly because the two sets of parents disagreed on how to discipline the children. Her father then rented a small house on his own, but it did not have enough bedrooms. Finally, as his income rose they were able to move into a house that was adequate for their needs. Hung Van Tran shared a house in Caldwell with friends, but they had to commute 50 miles round trip in order to attend night classes in English at Boise State University.
Barriers to employment
As time went by, most people found better jobs and some were able to buy nice-looking homes in the subdivisions lying west and southwest of Boise. There is some evidence to suggest that Vietnamese residences were originally clustered around the center of town, in areas known to local residents as East Boise and the North End. Over time there was a gradual shift westward. Schools with heavy concentrations of Vietnamese children (sporadically the subject of features stories in The Idaho Statesman) seem to have originally been near the city center. Now the only elementary school to offer a regular class in English as a Second Language is on the west side of town. An active organization of Vietnamese Catholics is associated with St. John’s Cathedral, in the city center, although most Vietnamese people no longer live in that neighborhood. The first Vietnamese market opened in East Boise, but moved after a few years to West Boise. Other Vietnamese businesses subsequently opened on the west side of town. Several Vietnamese families now own homes in one subdivision southwest of town, near the intersection of Five Mile and Columbia roads; however, Vietnamese people live in many parts of the city. There is no one area that could be called a Vietnamese neighborhood.
Finding adequate employment was also difficult for new arrivals. Although most found jobs, wages were often low and people had to work hard to learn new skills. Many professionals had to accept downward mobility. Many Vietnamese men had been in the military; when they arrived in the United States they did not have skills that transferred easily to civilian employment. For instance, Kim Hoang’s father, who had been a high-ranking naval officer, found work in an Idaho mobile home factory where he learned carpentry. He eventually became a good carpenter (later he remodeled their home and built a garage), but it was difficult for him to switch careers in mid-life. He had to learn American traffic regulations before he could get a driver’s license in Idaho, so at first he commuted five miles from Caldwell to Nampa on a bicycle. Because none of his six children was old enough to cook or do much housework, he also had to prepare meals and take care of household chores when he got home from work.
Chinh Vu’s family spent two and a half years in Montana before coming to Idaho. Her husband found employment there within two days — working outdoors in snowy weather pumping gas. He also had been in the military in Vietnam. Son Dam, yet another military man, worked at various low-paying jobs around Los Angeles, such as washing dishes. After he moved to Idaho in 1977, he found work in a trailer factory. Hung Van Tran, who moved to Idaho in 1976, got a job as a teacher’s aide working with mentally retarded children. The following year he decided to take classes as Boise State University, hoping to get a teaching credential. However, within a few weeks he realized that he would have to speak English very well in order to teach, or even to take classes in the humanities. He considered majoring in engineering, and finally settled on a vo-tech course in automobile repair in order to gain a skill quickly.
After a few years, however, many people were able to move to better jobs. Chinh Vu, who had been a teacher in Vietnam, taught in the Boise School District. By the early 1980s, Hung Van Tran was employed as a technician at Hewlett-Packard Company, where he is now a production supervisor. Son Dam also worked for Hewlett-Packard for a few years and now attends Boise State University, where he works in the library.
Learning English was a necessary but difficult task for newly arrived people, since Vietnamese has a grammatical structure that is very different from English. To help, the public schools designed special programs for refugee children. Before 1975, with the exception of Spanish-speaking children, most Idaho students spoke English as their native tongue. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, when refugee children began attending public schools, the schools were forced to reconsider their teaching methods for non-English speakers. Vietnamese aides were hired almost immediately. In 1976, King X Nguyen began working as an aide for the Boise School District. Later he was promoted to instructor in the English as a Second Language (ESL) program at Boise High School. Caldwell School District also hired a Vietnamese woman as a classroom aide in 1976. In December of that year, the Boise School District put on a cultural awareness conference. Two Vietnamese students and two Vietnamese teacher’s aides gave presentations describing how Vietnamese schools differed from American schools.
The Boise School District established ESL classrooms where children spent several hours a day. ESL teachers helped students with language skills and also taught aculturization, which involved field trips and discussions about life in the United States. In addition, teachers organized potluck ethnic meals at the school. Parents were encouraged to help in the classroom, where they could absorb a little English in the process. When students from the first group of refugees arrived in 1975, they were up to grade level in all their work, but English was still a difficult barrier. Students arriving in all years spent several hours a day in ESL class and the rest of their time in regular classes. Thus, much of their school day was spent in classrooms where everyone was speaking a language they did not understand, and in some cases going over subject matter which was unfamiliar.
In 1981, 30 grade-school children were assigned to the same class at Franklin Elementary School. By the year’s end, teachers were worried that students would lose their newly acquired English over the summer. As the school district had no funds for elementary level summer school, volunteers conducted a campaign to raise $2,000 to cover the cost of special summer school classes. Ten percent of the total amount was brought in by children at Koelsch Elementary School, who took an interest because two Indochinese students had attended Koelsch that year. Thus even young Boise children volunteered to aid the refugees with the same enthusiastic spirit as the adults who volunteered at the Refugee Center over the years.
By the 1980s, many of the newcomers had lost school time while in refugee camps. Indochinese refugees included some Laotian children who were illiterate in their native language and who had never before attended a school; many Vietnamese children were also less well prepared academically. Schools changed in Vietnam after the Communists gained power in 1973. There was less emphasis on academic achievement and more emphasis on learning socialist theory.
King Nguyen, the ESL instructor at Boise High, explained that many students in the 1980s were so concerned with simply getting out of the country that they had no time or inclination to think about school. Although the refugee students in 1975 had language problems, he said, later students had many other problems as well. “For some, especially for those from Laos, getting a bowl of rice a day is their first priority,” he explained to a newspaper reporter in 1987. “Getting out of the country is their second priority. An education has not been a priority.”
More diversity within the refugee group
Eventually, refugee students began coming to Idaho from a variety of countries. From 1975 through 1978, refugees were almost all Vietnamese. By 1979, they were joined by Cambodians and Laotians. In the early ’80s, some of the Mariel Cuban refugees came to Idaho. By the mid-’80s, large numbers of refugees entered the state from Eastern Europe. Polish and Romanian people came around 1985, and by the late 1980s, Russian Pentecostal refugees arrived in large numbers. All through that time, the number of Spanish-speaking children in the schools continued to grow. Increasing diversity meant that hiring a few Vietnamese-speaking or Spanish-speaking teachers was not enough. Schools began to put more emphasis on hiring teachers with formal training in English as a Second Language, and less emphasis on hiring school personnel who spoke the students’ native language. In the late 1980s, the number of refugee students decreased. Boise School District discontinued ESL classes at the junior high level, although they were retained at Franklin Elementary and Boise High. Tutors were hired to go to the students at any school in the district.
Other districts with smaller numbers of refugee children never offered full-fledged ESL programs. For instance, in the Meridian School District (a suburb to the west of Boise) the roving tutor approach was used all during the 1980s. Meridian experimented over the years with various methods of hiring tutors, trying full-time and part-time, retired teachers and education students.
By the early 1980s, there was increased diversity among the immigrants and refugees coming to Idaho as well as within the Vietnamese community itself. A large number of Vietnamese people who came to Idaho in the 1980s were Chinese whose families had lived in Vietnam for anywhere from one to three generations. Like many Northern Vietnamese people (who moved south in 1954 when the country was divided at the Geneva Convention and then left Vietnam after 1975), Chinese people were two-time refugees. In some cases their families had fled from China during the political and military upheavals of the early 20th century. Others left after Mao Tse-Tung defeated the Nationalists in 1949. In the 1980s, they escaped from political upheaval again. Although most were Vietnamese citizens, they kept their ethnic identify within Vietnamese society. They spoke Chinese and Vietnamese and lived for the most part in their own communities, especially Cholon, a suburb of Saigon. While in Vietnam, they retained the food and other traditions of China. However, depending on the length of time their family had been in Vietnam, they also identified to a greater or lesser degree with Vietnamese culture. Once they arrived in Boise, many kept traditions from both cultures and tried to pass both the Vietnamese and Chinese languages on to their children.
A traditional enmity had existed between China and Vietnam for centuries. Once the American war ended in Vietnam, the uneasy alliance between the Chinese and Vietnamese communists began to falter, until finally fighting began along the border between the two countries in early 1979. Vietnamese hostility toward China at that point also took the form of hostility toward Vietnamese citizens of Chinese descent. The situation was complicated by the fact that most Chinese were businessmen. By 1978, the Vietnamese government wanted to impose a more complete socialism on what had been a free-wheeling capitalist economy in the south. Ben Luu explained:
In Vietnam most of the Chinese control the economy: export, import, contracting with the government, is in the Chinese hands. In Vietnam the Chinese don’t deal with politics. I mean, whatever government [is in] control, they still okay as long as their business running smooth. And the South Vietnam government more cooperated with the … Chinese businessmen, because to keep the country going they need these people. … But the communists – at first they let these businesses [keep] going, for the first few years, when they took over the country. Later on, everything shut down, everything taken into the government hands, because communist countries, no private business allowed in the country.
In 1978, the government began forcing the Chinese to leave Vietnam, usually extorting high cash payments from them in the process. Chinese people made their way to refugee camps throughout Southeast Asia. In the camps, they waited to be admitted to a third country where they could settle down and again begin to lead normal lives.
These themes can all be seen in the lives of Boise’s Chinese-Vietnamese people. For example, Victor Quang Hang, now a Boise resident, left his home in 1982. His upper middle-class Chinese family had been in Vietnam for three generations. They lived in Soc Trang, about 300 kilometers south of Saigon, where they owned a farm. After the communist takeover, the government confiscated most of the family’s land and jailed Hang’s father for two years, from 1975 to 1977. When Hang left Vietnam, he traveled through Cambodia, crossing the border into Thailand at night. Once he reached Thailand, he stayed at a refugee camp in Prachtn Buri province for two and a half years before receiving permission to emigrate to the United States.
Hang said the camp was like a jail, because as far as the Thais were concerned, the refugees were illegal immigrants. Inside, the camp was inhabited by both Cambodians and Vietnamese. The Vietnamese people stayed in a restricted area, not mixing with the Cambodians. The United Nations and the Red Cross took care of the refugees, supplying water and small amounts of food. Each person received, per week, two kilograms of rice, 600 grams of fish or meat, one kilogram of vegetables and toilet paper. The camp moved as fighting ebbed and flowed across the border area during the dry season. Immigration officials came to the camp, interviewing people to decide who could come to the United States. When Hang was interviewed, he was so nervous he forgot the date of his own birthday. In spite of his nervousness, he passed the interview and came to the United States, where he lived in New Jersey for a few months before moving in 1985 to join a friend in Boise.
Ben Luu came to the United States in 1979. His father, who had left China around the time the communists took over, owned a paint store in Saigon. In 1978, the Vietnamese government put pressure on Chinese people to leave and confiscated Chinese businesses, including the Luu’s store. However, people had to pay in gold to leave the country. Because it was expensive, the Luu family could only afford to send one son. Ben Luu traveled on a small wooden boat to a refugee camp in Hong Kong. His refugee camp experience was different than Hang’s. The camp itself was crowded, with people sleeping on three-tier bunk beds; however, the camps in Hong Kong at that time were open, so that Luu was able to go out and work in the city during the day. He said that he enjoyed Hong Kong. After nine months in the camp, he arrived in Boise where some friends of his parents lived. As the oldest son in the family, Luu left Vietnam first. In 1982 he began the lengthy paperwork necessary to bring relatives from Vietnam to the United States under the Orderly Departure Program. Through ODP, people can leave Vietnam legally, taking an airplane to their destination. Although the bureaucratic process moves very slowly and the outcome is not guaranteed, the Luu family was reunited in Boise in 1989.
The difficult journey
Most Vietnamese refugees who arrived in Idaho after 1978 had a difficult time escaping from Vietnam. Some were former military officers who were jailed for a period of years after 1975. Once they were released from jail, they left the country. For instance, Yung Ha, now a Boise resident, hoped to finish college in Saigon as a young man. Instead, in 1968 he was drafted into the Vietnamese army. By 1975, he had become a first lieutenant of artillery, commanding approximately 100 men. Ten days after the communists took over he had to go to “meetings.” Those meetings turned out to be the beginning of a lengthy imprisonment. He spent two years in jail and two more years confined in a rural area before making up his mind to escape. “Nobody wants to leave their native country,” he said, “but you can’t live with your enemy.”
To get out of the country, Ha had to buy places for himself and his son on a small wooden boat with 34 other people. Although his boat was stopped once by Thai pirates, he said he was lucky – the pirates took only his watch, the boat had no mechanical trouble and the captain knew the way. They made it to a refugee camp in Malaysia after four days and four nights. His wife and daughter left Vietnam four months later on another boat. They had bad luck – their boat had engine trouble after the first day and it took them nine days to reach Thailand. Ha spent seven months at Pulau Bidong, a crowded refugee camp in Malaysia. Ha’s sister had come to Boise in 1975, and eventually the Ha family was able to join her there. In 1988, their children were attending local schools and doing well. Ha mentioned proudly that his boy had recently taken first place in a school tennis tournament. Ha worked for the Hewlett-Packard Company, where his sister was also employed. The outcome could have been very different. One morning in 1979, while Ha was still in Vietnam, he saw many dead bodies washed up onto the beach, presumably from a boat that had sunk.
In other cases, families split up, with some staying behind and others leaving Vietnam. In 1982, East Junior High School published “Journeys to a New Land,’ a slim booklet of essays in which Vietnamese and Laotian students explained how they came to Idaho. Hai Ly, in ninth grade, described his experiences this way:
One day my father told me in the living room, ‘you have to leave Vietnam.’ My father didn’t want me in the communist country, and he wanted me to live with my brother in the United States. When I left my house I felt bad because my grandparents, parents, older sister and three younger brothers stayed in Vietnam, and I didn’t know when my family would be together again. … We were on the sea for five days. I was afraid because we didn’t have enough food and water. The sea water came up into the boat, so I was afraid I would die. On the second day, at night, my friend had an accident in the boat because he went into the propeller of the boat and cut off his feet. Nobody had any medicine in the boat. In the morning, he was dead. His mother was my mother’s good friend. When I left, my mother told him to take care of me; however, he died, so I had to take care of myself.
Ly spent a year in a refugee camp in Indonesia before coming to Boise to live with his brother and several cousins.
Reaching out to others
When new people arrived in Boise, they were often able to stay with friends or relatives who had come to the area earlier. They studied English – at the Refugee Center if they were adults, in school if they were children – and began the task of establishing themselves in their new location. The search for jobs was often difficult. Ben Luu said that when he arrived in 1979,
There are not that many jobs in Boise. It’s really depressing to go look for a job. And the restaurants here, you know, most people work in the restaurants. See, in the past, before Micron opened, there are not that many jobs around. Hewlett-Packard had not hired people for a long time … I heard some Americans say, ‘If you come two years earlier, there are plenty of jobs in Boise.’ But I come two years later. And whereas the Vietnamese working [at] Hewlett-Packard, they come in 1976, ’77 or ’78, they get job there, they working there. … But now people are coming to work, they need a degree [to work at Hewlett-Packard]. See, things change. And so, most Vietnamese coming here, they will work for restaurants … Most of them stay in the restaurant business, and then Micron opened, and then people started applying at Micron. But before that, there are not that many [jobs] around here.
Micron Technology, a local manufacturer of computer chips, became the area’s largest employer of Southeast Asian refugees soon after it opened in 1980.
Vietnamese people also helped each other to find jobs. Son Dam described the way he found his first job in Boise:
[A friend] had Wednesday off, and going to take me, go find a job. And meanwhile he contact with another guy who work in a trailer factory … And then, that Wednesday he come, and he took me to this job, and he even fill the papers for me, and I didn’t even speak English that much, you know, and they help me fill out. ‘Okay, well, come to work tomorrow.’ Just like that. But easy to find a job because the Vietnamese guy there, at work, he have a good reputation because he’s hard worker, and they give me job. So then a second guy come in, and I did the same thing … Usually we just help each other and … make time, just drive around, drop application everywhere until you find a job. That what I used to do for friends, for people that even I don’t know. Just they need help, so we help each other that way.
Earlier arrivals also helped the new people in other less tangible ways. They translated, offered transportation and explained American culture and customs.
A few of the new Vietnamese refugees in the early 1980s also found work at an ethnic business in Boise. Soon after 1975, a Vietnamese woman named Nhu Lofstedt opened a small grocery store which sold imported Asian food. Lofstedt’s business did well and in 1979 she was able to move it to larger quarters on the west side of town. Not long afterward, she opened a restaurant in half the store space. At first, the restaurant had short hours and the atmosphere was casual. Within a few years, however, she closed the store and expanded the restaurant into all of the available space. She lengthened the hours and redecorated with subdued lighting and white tablecloths. Other Vietnamese people were hired to wait tables and work in the kitchen. The Vietnamese restaurant became a prosperous Boise business, always full at noon hour and in the evenings. The clientele was no longer limited to Vietnamese or Asian people, but included a cross-section of all of Boise.
In the beginning, Lofstedt’s store sold Vietnamese magazines in addition to food, and was a small focal point for social activity. According to Ben Luu, “There’s not much going on in 1979. From what I heard other people talk about, in 1979 they have a very small family gathering type … like certain holidays like Christmas or New Year’s … but not a major party or celebration in Idaho in 1979.” Son Dam remembered that when he arrived in late 1978, Boise was a quiet town, and the Vietnamese people here did not get together much. However, Dam had some ideas:
Back then … there was not so many Vietnamese, and they scattered out. So, I just have a lot of ideas that make the party, and I was a party guy anyway. We had a party at the old house I rented [downtown]. The party, it was on all night until next day. The people like it! We never have anything like this around here. Lots of people [came]. And after that, you know, we just kind of party more often.
Both Luu and Dam said that social activities began to pick up in the 1980s. That would make sense, as more new people arrived in those years. In fact, Luu specifically mentioned that one of the aims of the social get-togethers was for the earlier residents to meet the new people, in order to get some information about what was going on back in Vietnam. Dam explained that social events usually centered on a group of women who prepared various Vietnamese recipes while the men talked. Several people mentioned that by the late 1980s, dances were organized on holidays and occasionally at other times of the year, as well as picnics and river floats in the summer. These latter events were attended mostly by the younger people.
The most important holiday in the Vietnamese calendar is the Lunar New Year, which is celebrated annually around the end of January or beginning of February. (The date, which varies from year to year, is the same as the Chinese New Year) The first Vietnamese New Year celebration in Idaho was arranged in 1976 with the help of Helen Huff and the Refugee Center staff, but after a few years the Vietnamese people took over the organizational tasks involved. In Vietnam, the celebration lasts for several days (it used to last for more than a week) and the entire society participates. Work comes to a halt all over the country as people go to pagodas, set off firecrackers, eat special holiday meals with their families, gamble and visit friends. In Boise, the celebration must of necessity take on a different character. Over the years, Vietnamese-American holiday traditions have developed. People gather at a public hall to visit friends and watch a show. Everyone dresses up in their best clothes. Those who have theatrical talents put on humorous or serious sketches, or perform popular musical numbers. However, the mood is still Vietnamese. During the New Year it is important not to quarrel with anyone. Whether a person has good luck or bad luck throughout the following year depends on what happens during those few days. Thus, the New Year is a time to be happy and friendly. “You want to get lucky and happy for the whole year,” explained one man. That spirit still pervades the Vietnamese New Year celebration here.